USCIRF Annual Report 2004 - Georgia
|Publisher||United States Commission on International Religious Freedom|
|Publication Date||1 May 2004|
|Cite as||United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2004 - Georgia, 1 May 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4855696f23.html [accessed 1 September 2015]|
Georgia's previous government under Eduard Shevardnadze maintained a slow and inadequate response to ongoing vigilante violence against some of the country's religious minorities. In a welcome move in March 2004, the new Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili ordered the arrest and pretrial detention of seven leaders of mob violence against religious minorities. Following the ouster of Shevardnadze, officials reportedly permitted permitted the Jehovah's Witnesses Watchtower Bible Society to operate legally in November 2003. Nevertheless, other significant religious freedom issues remain unresolved, including the fact that only the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) has the right to register and gain legal status, giving the GOC precedence over other religious communities in official affairs, including public education. The Commission placed Georgia on its Watch List in 2004.
After Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, popular protests forced its first president to flee, leading to civil war. During the same period, two violent separatist conflicts in the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia displaced some 300,000 people. In 1992, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was invited to return to Georgia. Although he was elected president in 1995 and again in 2000, Shevardnadze's rule was marked by territorial disputes, rampant corruption, and poverty. In November 2003, faced with mass popular discontent over what were seen as rigged parliamentary elections, Shevardnadze resigned his office, and in January 2004, Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president. Although Georgia has a lively civil society, with many non-governmental organizations, political parties and a largely free press, since 2000, the human rights situation has worsened, especially after the government's repeal of judicial reforms. According to the 2003 Religious Freedom report issued by the Department of State, religious freedom conditions "remained poor" in Georgia.
The 1995 Constitution guarantees religious freedom and forbids "persecution of an individual for his thoughts, beliefs or religion." In practice, however, violations of religious freedom do occur, especially at the regional level, where local officials restrict the rights of mainly non-traditional religious minorities, who in recent years have been subjected to societal violence.
In the past three years, minority religious groups in Georgia, including Baptists, Catholics, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Orthodox churches that do not accept the primacy of the GOC Patriarchate have been subjected to more than 100 violent vigilante attacks. The Jehovah's Witnesses have been especially singled out, as well as members of independent Orthodox churches. Pentecostals have also been attacked; adherents have been beaten and property has been vandalized or stolen. Local police are sometimes implicated in these attacks or often refuse to intervene to protect the victims. What began in 1999 as a series of isolated attacks in the capital of Tbilisi escalated into a nation-wide scourge of mob assaults against members of religious minorities treated with relative impunity. According to the Department of State, the number of such attacks continued to increase in 2002 and 2003.
The main instigators of these attacks were "renegade" members of the GOC: defrocked priest Vasili Mkalavishvili and director of the Orthodox "Jvari" Union, Paata Bluashvili, who reportedly was supported by some in the GOC hierarchy. The Georgian government under President Shevardnadze did very little to punish those responsible for attacks on religious minorities. Few investigations were opened, although in many cases the perpetrators were known, and there was only one criminal trial connected to these attacks. Acting on a reported promise in March 2003 to bring to justice those responsible for violence against religious communities, Shevardnadze's government initiated a trial against violent self-appointed Orthodox vigilante Paata Bluashvili and four associates in April. On November 4, 2003, two days after the disputed parliamentary elections, a court in Rustavi sentenced Bluashvili and four associates to conditional prison terms, ranging from two to four years. Although they have allegedly been involved in a series of violent attacks on Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses, the five men were sentenced only for their violent attacks on two Jehovah's Witnesses meetings.
Similarly convoluted legal proceedings have marked the Georgian judiciary's treatment of defrocked priest Vasili Mkalavishvili, another leader of mob violence against religious minorities. In June 2003, a court ordered that Mkalavishvili be held in preventive detention for three months, but he went into "hiding" and continued to act without consequence. Over 100 police stormed Mkalavishvili's church in Tbilisi in March 2004, where the priest and his followers had barricaded themselves. Mkalavishvili was taken at once into three-month pre-trial detention in conformity with the June 2003 court order. At a closed hearing on March 14, the judge ruled that seven of Mkalavishvili's followers also be held for three months of pre-trial detention.
The police raid against the violent priest caused a stir in Georgia. Immediately after the arrests, President Saakashvili denied that his government was undermining Orthodoxy and justified Mkalavishvili's arrest as a way to "defend" the GOC. According to Saakashvili, "extremist religious groups threaten the Orthodox church." The president declared, "My supreme goal, as an Orthodox Christian and as president, is to defend my religion." He called on people to support his efforts, saying, "The State should protect the Church from negative foreign influence and the activities of extremist groups." Meanwhile, the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate issued a statement on March 12 pointing out that the GOC had defrocked Mkalavishvili in 1996, but condemned police violence during his arrest.
The GOC, to which 65 percent of the country's population claim adherence, is granted privileges and influence not given to other religions. Article 9 of the Constitution recognizes the "special importance of the GOC in Georgian history," giving the GOC considerable influence in official affairs, particularly education. The GOC is the only religious organization to have been granted tax-exempt status. In October 2002, the Georgian government signed an agreement, or concordat, with the GOC. The agreement grants the Patriarch immunity, excludes the GOC clergy from military service, and gives GOC clergy the exclusive right to conduct religious services in prisons and the military. The agreement also grants the GOC approval authority over construction of religious buildings and publication of religious literature. Assyrian Chaldean Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims, Old Believers, Jehovah's Witnesses and Roman Catholics have informed the Forum 18 News Service that the GOC Patriarchate has often acted to prevent them from acquiring, building, or reclaiming places of worship. The GOC Patriarchate has also reportedly denied permission for Pentecostals, the Salvation Army, and the True Orthodox Church to print religious literature in Georgia, although Assyrian Chaldean Catholics, Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Yezidis (an ancient Kurdish religion) have not reported difficulties in this regard. While there is no obligatory religious education in public schools, the GOC has the authority to review textbooks and has sometimes banned certain materials. Indeed, leaders of the Assyrian Chaldean Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, True Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Yezidis have reported that they believe that school religion and culture classes are in fact obligatory and that the GOC has a monopoly in this regard.
At present, Georgia is the only country of the former Soviet Union that does not have a religion law. Official drafts circulated in the parliament last year contain some problematic areas. For example, what is termed "improper proselytism" could give rise to criminal charges. The absence of a mechanism for obtaining legal status means that only one religious community in the country – the GOC – in effect has such status. In September 2003, the Roman Catholic Church failed to gain legal status in Georgia when the Georgian government suddenly cancelled plans to sign an agreement with the Vatican. The leaders of many religious minorities also seek recognized legal status, since that is a prerequisite for owning property and organizing most religious activities.